Biologist Kaleigh LaRiche spent most of her first two years after college working in wildlife education at the Akron, Ohio, zoo. Today, she's a first-year science teacher in a Cleveland middle school.
LaRiche, who earns her master's in education from the University of Akron this spring, thanks the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship for her confidence in the classroom. The two-year master's program recruits accomplished science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) college graduates, as well as career changers like LaRiche, and puts them through their paces in preparation to work in high-need schools.
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It is one of several model programs leading the charge to fulfill President Barack Obama's call for 100,000 highly qualified STEM teachers over the next decade, and to get them ready for the much-anticipated new K-12 math and science standards. With only 26 percent of U.S. 12th graders now deemed proficient in math, most states have adopted more rigorous new Common Core Standards for what kids should master at each level.
These guidelines stress depth over breadth; a separate effort, the Next Generation Science Standards, emphasizes questioning and discovery rather than rote memorization.
The Wilson Fellowship partners with several graduate schools of education in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and New Jersey, including the University of Indianapolis, Ball State University, the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Montclair State University.
Almost from the start, fellows are immersed for the school year in local K-12 classrooms. LaRiche's four-day-a-week internship at a Canton, Ohio, middle school provided a $30,000 stipend and two mentors to show her the ropes. Course work included classes in the biology department and on problem- and project-based learning.
LaRiche is now a licensed teacher at Cleveland's Harvard Avenue Community School. When covering renewable and non-renewable energy in her sixth grade science class, she breaks students into groups and has them examine which renewable energy alterative would work best for a fictitious town and why.
"They are not used to learning this way," she says. "They are used to a teacher lecturing, taking notes, doing worksheets and labs." The goal is to make clear that science is a process.
Such innovations reflect the latest thinking about what is needed to put better science and math teachers - all kinds of teachers, in fact - into classrooms: an emphasis on subject content knowledge, abundant field experience and high-caliber candidates, as outlined in a 2010 National Research Council report.
Additionally, teacher-prep programs are creating subject-specific methods courses - so a biology candidate can study how best to teach biology, say - that provide training in problem-solving and project-based instruction.
"Woodrow Wilson really opened us to innovation and thinking creatively," says Jennifer Drake, dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Indianapolis. The university therefore has embedded intensive hands-on practice in all of its teacher-prep programs, is moving to require elementary-ed candidates to take more math and science courses and has deepened cross-pollination between the arts and sciences and education schools.
"In math, there is always a right answer, but there are always different ways to get there," says Christopher Lewine, a third-year teacher in Redwood City, Calif. So instead of moving to the next problem when a correct answer is given to an algebraic problem, Lewine's class at Everest Public High School is just getting started.
Rather than lecturing, he prompts students to discuss and defend how they solved the problem, discovering different approaches from one another. He learned this technique while getting his master's in the yearlong practice-heavy Teacher Education Program at Stanford University.
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Though the pace of innovation has picked up, teacher-prep programs vary widely in quality, and far too many still prepare teachers in a bubble, disconnected from the realities of the classroom, says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and author of "Educating School Teachers," a milestone 2006 report.
You want "strong support in a total immersion program," preferably one that partners with K-12 schools and provides teacher-mentors, says Charles Coble, co-director of an Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities initiative to overhaul teacher training. That effort, the Science & Math Teacher Imperative, has sparked a move toward these sorts of best practices at 132 public and flagship universities and 13 university systems, which together produce more than 40 percent of the nation's math and science teachers.
Some of the new master's options aimed at scientists and mathematicians are modeled on the clinical training medical residents get. Kevin Perry was headed for a career in surgery when he decided he'd rather teach middle-school biology in New York City instead. He gets his teaching certification in middle- and high-school science this summer after a year in New York University's Clinically Rich Integrated Science Program (CRISP).
"On the second day of the program, we were put in the classroom," Perry says. After several weeks observing during a summer session last July, he was paired with a biology teacher in September to observe and then begin co-teaching at East Side Community School in Manhattan.
Each week, Perry and fellow teaching residents are led by NYU and K-12 school faculty in instructional "rounds" in which they discuss what works and what doesn't. He also takes courses in science, teaching methods, literacy and language acquisition and data and assessment.
Perry receives $30,000 in scholarships from NYU's Steinhart school and New York State, along with a $20,000 living stipend. Similar residencies are offered by the University of Pennsylvania, University of Delaware and Georgia State University, among many others.
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How can current teachers beef up their STEM bona fides and get set for the coming standards? Part-time and online options are springing up to meet their needs.
The University of Maryland, for example, has created a teacher-oriented master's of education in middle-school mathematics.
"This truly has made me a better teacher," says Germantown, Md., algebra teacher Adam Ritchie, who finished the Maryland evening and summer program in December. "I was able to apply [course work] right off the bat in the classroom."
Besides studies that encouraged exploratory and inquiry-based learning and gave him the know-how to better challenge all kids regardless of ability, Ritchie took algebra, geometry and statistics, and now feels much more ready for the Common Core in math, which gets rolled out in county middle schools next year.
The other welcome payoff: a 20 percent bump in salary.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.